For Big Oil, coffee and chocolate could be the new black gold. Under pressure from investors and governments alike to cut emissions, major European oil companies are ploughing billions into renewable energy but are struggling to craft business plans that promise the returns shareholders have come to expect. Europe’s big oil firms, however, have another card to play: their vast global networks of filling stations. BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total all say they are betting on higher profits from sales of groceries and snacks at their retail networks, which will still be an essential port of call for motorists in an electric era. Paying at the pump to fill up with petrol may only take a few minutes, but even with the fastest electric vehicle (EV) chargers, customers would have at least 10 to 15 minutes to kill – plenty of time to grab a coffee and do some shopping. While the so-called marketing operations of big oil firms – retail sales of fuel, lubricants, groceries and TV dinners – usually contribute a smaller slice of profits than oil and gas production, they typically have higher margins. The renewable energy and power businesses oil companies are moving into, however, tend to have lower returns on investment, making it important for firms such as BP and Shell to find ways to boost their overall returns in low-carbon economies. That’s why Shell plans to expand its retail network by more than 20% to 55,000 sites worldwide by 2025. BP aims to increase its network of filling stations by nearly 50% to 29,000 by 2030 and boost its EV charging network to 70,000 points. Total, meanwhile, is planning to increase its EV charging network in Europe to 150,000 points by 2025 from 18,000 now. Subway and McDonald’s, the world’s two biggest food chains, both have fewer outlets than Shell. U.S. giant Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer by sales, has 11,510 stores globally. BP and Shell are also betting that daily contact with tens of millions of customers will give it masses of data that it can use to tailor sales for shoppers in small towns, cities or even specific petrol stations throughout the world. LOCKDOWN PREVIEW While there are relatively few electric cars on the road now, oil companies have already had a glimpse of the potential of their retail networks during coronavirus lockdowns this year. Fuel sales slumped as travel restrictions kicked in, but people still nipped to nearby petrol stations with convenience stores to stock up on daily necessities. In fact, Shell’s retail division, known as “marketing”, which has the world’s biggest network of filling stations, had its best quarter on record in the three months to Sept. 30, bringing in $1.6 billion in adjusted earnings. So far in 2020, Shell’s marketing division has contributed 60% of its overall earnings, which are traditionally dominated by its upstream oil and integrated gas businesses. Huibert Vigeveno, Shell’s head of refining, chemicals and marketing, said the company holds a daily call to check on customer preferences for anything from engine oil to croissants so it can constantly adapt.